Katy Burns: Our connected – and perilous – world

Last modified: 11/19/2013 12:12:35 PM
Even as we prepare for Thanksgiving, celebrating the bounty of the season, we are haunted by the images of small children in ragged clothes desperately drinking water from dirty ditches and old ladies sitting, weeping, among the wreckage of all they owned.

The juxtaposition of images of abundance here and stark deprivation there is startling, jarring. But increasingly familiar.

Once again we’re witnessing, from the comfort of our warm homes, another natural disaster in some far away land. This time, the sheer power of nature to destroy is on full display in the Philippine archipelago. Typhoon Haiyan – believed to be the most powerful and destructive tropical cyclone (a category that includes hurricanes) ever to make landfall in recorded history – has almost totally flattened a vast swath of the island country.

Thousands are dead, more thousands may be missing and never accounted for, as a wall of water swept and scoured the low-lying land.

The rush of news, including graphic pictures and impassioned pleas for help, was immediate, overwhelming and heart-rending. The physical devastation alone was staggering, and the effect on people was incalculable. Because access to the stricken areas was nearly nonexistent, the immediate plight of the survivors was even more dire.

Aid is starting to flow

Other countries – the United States in a prominent role, as is often the case – rallied their own resources and headed for the area, as did the nonprofit organizations – Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Relief Services and others – that are in the forefront of such efforts. And by week’s end, aid is starting to flow to the most seriously affected places and people.

But as hard as tending to the immediate needs of the victims is, help will get there. The infrastructural damage will be infinitely harder to repair. Just restoring electricity, water systems and passable roads will be a gargantuan undertaking, especially for a government that is not unduly wealthy.

And as the people of the Philippines try to rebuild their lives, we will revisit and watch the progress. It’s the way things happen today.

For most of recorded history, news of bad, even calamitous natural disasters traveled slowly, if at all. A volcanic eruption in Asia could kill many thousands, yet be unheard of in most of the world. Devastating plagues could make their way from region to region almost stealthily. Even as recently a century ago, news was flashed around the world by telegraph – a miracle for the time, primitive today.

Now we are surrounded by global electronic networks and communications satellites that can almost instantly transport sound and vivid pictures to the furthest corners of the globe. Cell phones and cameras are ubiquitous, in all but the most primitive outposts. We are all, increasingly, witnesses to history, some of it grim.

So we will see more tropical cyclones. More earthquakes. More tsunamis. More floods. And thanks to an ever-warming planet, we may see more destructive ones as well.

Increasingly unstable

While the exact connection between any given storm and climate change isn’t known and perhaps can’t be, there has been widespread agreement by climate scientists that, overall, our increasingly unstable weather is likely to increase the power of individual disturbances, particularly in coastal areas as the oceans continue to rise. And they will, inexorably.

Places like the Philippines, so much of it barely above sea level, are in particular peril. Think of the small Pacific Island nations where people are even now making plans for eventual evacuations. Think of Bangladesh and other countries, many of them utterly impoverished, living at the mercy of the sea that surrounds them.

But it’s not only faraway places that are at risk. We in the United States are in the eye of coming storms and ocean rise as well. Some 39 percent of Americans in the contiguous 48 states live on a seacoast, frequently in areas not much above sea level. This includes such great cities as Boston and New York City, both extraordinarily vulnerable to ocean rise. Look at the damage done by Hurricane Sandy a year ago.

A recent report by a coalition of scientists said that much of south Florida, including the interior Everglades, will likely be under 5 feet of water within a century. Yet in Florida, as in much of our country, ocean rise is getting only fitful attention, at best.

In poor places like the Philippines, Bangladesh and the tiny Pacific island nations, they’re aware of the perils poised by our changing climate. They just don’t have the resources to do anything about it. In the United States, we have the resources. We just don’t want to think about it.

But as we gather with friends and family to enjoy the holiday, we should give a thought to what we’ve witnessed in the Philippines. And give a little more thought to the disaster that could be awaiting us. Some disasters, like that, are sudden. But others creep up on us.

As Ben Strauss, the director of the Florida study, told the New York Times, “The sea is marching inland, and it’s not going to stop.”

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)


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